Art & Commerce: Back In Business

The problem with socialism is socialism; the problem with capitalism is capitalists.”

So said Herr William Schlamm some 50 years ago.

I didn’t overhear Willi getting off his mot, but I have read it enough times quoted by William F. Buckley Jr. in his column not only to remember it, but also to have the time for the reflection necessary to affirm its truth. (Which is about five or six seconds each time, I’d say.)

Buckley, in fact, says he only used to quote Schlamm annually. But with the recent litigations, U.S. Attorney raids, RICO filings, SEC investigations, excessive avarice reports on ET, and random displays hither and yon of porcine corporate troughing, Buckley has come to quote Schlamm’s line so much, it’s become as well known as Buckley’s about the first thing he would do if elected mayor of New York when he was running in 1965.*

So what am I going to do about errant capitalists who give economic freedom a bad name? Darned if I know.

But three guys—one from academia, one via an ad agency in Chicago and another who pops up ofttimes in Rolling Stone and Forbes—have written books that caused me to break my business-book fast imposed after a binge-reading session last year which caused my hat size to go from 7 5/8 to Mardi Gras dimensions, with little of the joy of Bourbon Street in February.

The first, by former copywriter Hadji J.S. Williams, is Knock the Hustle: How to Save Your Job and Your Life From Corporate America. This is a true testament to the free enterprise system: Williams avoided the agent-publisher-editor route by starting his own publishing company, Prodigal Pen. Knock the Hustle is now in a second edition. The copy I read came with a cover warning: “This exclusive Promo Copy contains some occasional misspellings and other minor grammatical flaws.” I noticed none of them, but don’t go by me. It is the sort of book that is best read before you go into business, as it mixes the truly heroic with the truly pernicious in precisely the proportion you are likely to find in the world of commerce. Williams, it appears to me, is trying to argue for a Christian-Jewish-Islamic-Pagan Capitalism, as he draws upon St. Luke, the Psalms, Malcolm X and Gore Vidal for inspiration. MBA programs should buy the book in bulk; it’s more valuable in the long run than Money and Banking or The Managerial Revolution. Flaws? Sure, but what the heck, I don’t even agree a month later with everything I write.

The second book, Selling the Dream: Why Advertising Is Good Business, is by John Hood, who is president of the John Locke Foundation, a “think tank.” To be a real contrarian, try to defend junk mail, jingles and telemarketing. Show that they are good for business and good for the consumer, and you have a refreshing argument, at least. For the second year in a row, the 4A’s is devoting its major conference to ROI (return on investment), and several ad/marketing blogs are inundated with debates about ROI. Advertising’s critics never question the return on investment that advertisers garner; they question whether advertisers, to achieve their massive returns, manipulate the young, the old, the naive, to do things their nature otherwise wouldn’t do, like buy a home air conditioner or use underarm deodorant. The “Good” in Hood’s title is more moral than practical, and Hood has written a book that absolves you of any guilt if you’ve ever worked on Fedders or Sure.

Those books are as helpful today as Adam Smith’s Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations was in the 18th century to give a moral and practical foundation for an economic system that would bring prosperity to the masses. Oddly, just as I was writing this, I came across a review of a new book about Smith’s work, a sort of abbreviated Wealth of Nations by P.J. O’Rourke. It’s 200-some-odd pages versus 900-some-odd pages, in 10-point type, albeit with beautiful, helpful serifs. Even before O’Rourke’s light-handed approach to Smith, the book had been undergoing a revival—a revival that extended to a product placement in the last episode of season three of the HBO series The Wire. Seems the late Russell (aka Stringer) Bell—drug dealer, graft bagman, arranger of hits in bars and behind bars and, worse, a real estate developer—had a well-worn leather-cover copy of The Wealth of Nations in his bookcase. Stringer Bell had been taking business courses at a community college, but he had certainly seen the effects of the visible hand of the state in his city, Baltimore.

The O’Rourke edition of Smith is part of a series of contemporary, shortened versions of great books that are forbiddingly long for the modern reader who is not a specialist or a masochist. With a good illustrator like Carmine Infantino or George Euringer, this could even bring a return of Classics Illustrated, a series without which I might not have graduated from high school.